Last week the NY Times published a lengthy but fascinating story headlined “Who is the Bad Art Friend?” It’s a true story about two women and it touches on issues of friendship, competition, race, jealously and plagiarism. There are various side-characters and subplots but the main story is about two writers, Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson. Here’s the opening description of Dorland:
There is a sunny earnestness to Dawn Dorland, an un-self-conscious openness that endears her to some people and that others have found to be a little extra. Her friends call her a “feeler”: openhearted and eager, pressing to make connections with others even as, in many instances, she feels like an outsider. An essayist and aspiring novelist who has taught writing classes in Los Angeles, she is the sort of writer who, in one authorial mission statement, declares her faith in the power of fiction to “share truth,” to heal trauma, to build bridges. (“I’m compelled at funerals to shake hands with the dusty men who dig our graves,” she has written.) She is known for signing off her emails not with “All best” or “Sincerely,” but “Kindly.”
In 2015, Dorland decided to become a kidney donor. She didn’t do it because of a sick friend, she did it because she saw it as a way to do something life-changing for a complete stranger. She volunteered to give her kidney to whoever needed it. She later got to meet the orthodox Jewish man whose life she’d saved and she became an activist of sorts, promoting live kidney donation. Dorland also started a private Facebook group and shared the letter she’d written to whoever would receive her kidney:
Personally, my childhood was marked by trauma and abuse; I didn’t have the opportunity to form secure attachments with my family of origin. A positive outcome of my early life is empathy, that it opened a well of possibility between me and strangers. While perhaps many more people would be motivated to donate an organ to a friend or family member in need, to me, the suffering of strangers is just as real. … Throughout my preparation for becoming a donor … I focused a majority of my mental energy on imagining and celebrating you.
One of the people she’d ask to join that group was Sonya Larson. But she noticed that Larson never responded or said anything about the donation. That seemed odd to her at the time as she considered Larson a friend. She asked Larson about it and Larson admitted she’d seen it mentioned on Facebook but didn’t have much to say about it.
A year later, Dorland learned that Larson had done a reading at a book store and the story she’d read was about a woman who donated a kidney. Suddenly, Dorland felt there was something very odd going on. She contacted Larson, who admitted the story had been partly inspired by Dorland’s real-life donation. Dorland couldn’t understand why, if that was the case, she hadn’t brought it up.
And at this point I have to mention that Dawn Dorland is white and Sonya Larson is mixed race. Her mother is Chinese American and her father is white. Larson’s stories, including the one about the kidney donation, feature an Asian protagonist named Chuntao. In Larson’s hands, the story of the donation wasn’t one of selfless sacrifice. Instead, it depicted a rich white woman who donated a kidney to be a “white savior.” Ultimately, Chuntao, the Asian character receives the kidney but refuses to thank the donor to avoid becoming part of her white savior narrative.
When reflecting on Chuntao, Larson often comes back to the character’s autonomy, her nerve. “She resisted,” she told me. Chuntao refused to become subsumed by Rose’s narrative. “And I admire that. And I think that small acts of refusal like that are things that people of color — and writers of color — in this country have to bravely do all the time.”
For a time, Dorland did her best to avoid reading the story, which is called “The Kindest,” but eventually she did pick it up and discovered it contained a version of the letter she’d written to the unknown recipient of her kidney, the one she’d shared on Facebook.
Then in 2018, the story was selected by the Boston Book Festival and Dorland finally decided to push back. She emailed the festival and everyone associated with Larson, accusing her of plagiarism. She hired a lawyer who sent a Cease and Desist letter to the Book Festival. And in the course of digging in to the story, Dorland discovered an audio recording of an earlier version of the story. In that recording the letter to the kidney recipient was nearly identical to her own. Compare this to the actual letter above:
My own childhood was marked by trauma and abuse; I wasn’t given an opportunity to form secure attachments with my family of origin. But in adulthood that experience provided a strong sense of empathy. While others might desire to give to a family member or friend, to me the suffering of strangers is just as real.
Larson fought back by claiming that Dorland was trying to take credit for work by a “writer of color.”
“My piece is fiction,” she wrote. “It is not her story, and my letter is not her letter. And she shouldn’t want it to be. She shouldn’t want to be associated with my story’s portrayal and critique of white-savior dynamics. But her recent behavior, ironically, is exhibiting the very blindness I’m writing about, as she demands explicit identification in — and credit for — a writer of color’s work.”
But it didn’t work. The Boston Book Festival dropped the story. Lawsuits were filed and through discovery, Dorland gained access to hundreds of pages of emails that Larson and other members of her writing group had written back in 2015 when Dorland first announced her organ donation. It was basically a mean girls club making fun of someone’s generosity. It also made clear that Dorland had been the real subject of the story from the start.
Larson replied: “Oh, my god. Right? The whole thing — though I try to ignore it — persists in making me uncomfortable. … I just can’t help but think that she is feeding off the whole thing. … Of course, I feel evil saying this and can’t really talk with anyone about it.”
“I don’t know,” Scharer wrote. “A hashtag seems to me like a cry for attention.”
“Right??” Larson wrote. “#domoreforeachother. Like, what am I supposed to do? DONATE MY ORGANS?”…
Larson wrote in a chat with Alison Murphy: “Dude, I could write pages and pages more about Dawn. Or at least about this particular narcissistic dynamic, especially as it relates to race. The woman is a gold mine!”
Larson and her friends still claim that Dorland was merely one bit of inspiration but it sounds as if Larson just took Dorland’s story, made her wealthy instead of poor and cranked out a woke anti-white savior narrative.
The legal case over the story is ongoing but several of the commenters on the story have really nailed it. This is the second most upvoted response:
I have a different take on this. So… Dawn donates a kidney for whatever reason, I mean who cares? Then posts about it, then gets involved in a more pubic way, and… a bunch of writers secretly deride her (why, exactly? Guilt they aren’t doing enough? Just plain pettiness?). Then one of those writers, Larson, uses the feelings she feels about this kidney donation to craft a story, using Dawn’s actual words, never telling her, and then Larson has the gall to use racism as a defense? As a BIPOC artist, I take offense to Larson’s re-characterization of what she, in fact, did – steal, plagiarize, and – while not illegal – Larson’s ruthless backstabbing of someone she found ridiculous. It makes it harder for artists of color to cite racism when it actually occurs What was happening to Larson during her “summer of hell” and beyond was the result of her own lack of integrity and dishonesty and, yes, I’ll say it, entitlement.
The emails in discovery make this absolutely clear cut. Sonya cut and pasted Dawn’s letter, word for word, and then admitted to it in writing! That is the literal textbook definition of plagiarism, and the outright claiming of it in black and white only underlines it. Sonya is clearly not an ethical person, and all her middle school “friends” are complicit. They knew it was wrong, and yet they enabled and doubled down on it, all while ridiculing and bullying a vulnerable person because they deemed her a “white savior.” It’s a brulee-des-chats. I hope this article will shame them. I’m off to go unfollow Celeste Ng, who I once admired. Dawn, I’m so sorry for your losses.
There are so many good responses but I’ll just include one more:
So it’s “attention seeking” to make the life-endangering decision to donate a kidney and then talk about it in the hopes of inspiring others to consider organ donation, but it’s not “attention seeking” to publish your writing and promote it and hope that as many people as possible read it and that you get fame, money and appreciation?
It’s bad to be “emotionally needy” and overly earnest, but good to be mean and snarky behind other people’s backs?
It’s bad to be painfully honest about your feelings, but OK to outright lie about what you said or did — at least until the smoking email appears?
I could go on, but the lengths to which Larson and her friends have gone to try to excuse their bad behavior, including the worst thing that one writer can do to another — outright steal her exact words — would be staggering to me if I hadn’t attended high school eons ago. I guess mean girls never go out of style.
I don’t know which one of these women is the better writer but it’s pretty clear which one is the better person. The fact that Larson and her mean girl friends did all of this behind Dorland’s back as a way to make a woke point about white saviors (who are harming people of color by giving them their kidneys!) shouldn’t be overlooked. Wokeism grants people the moral license to look down on and mistreat others specifically because they have deemed themselves so noble and righteous.
Here’s Dorland talking about her donation back in 2017. This is the kind of thing that deserves mockery apparently, at least if a white woman does it.
Speaking of white women, I’ll wrap this up with a point Jesse Singal made on Twitter yesterday:
From NYT Mag:
“There’s very little emphasis on what this must be like for Sonya,” said Celeste Ng, “and what it is like for writers of color, generally — to write a story and then be told by a white writer, ‘Actually, you owe that to me.’”
— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) October 10, 2021